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SUMU project / How does society sound in music?

by Sini Mononen

What is music with a social message? A project examining Finnish art music of the present millennium and addressing the ability of music to comment on society is revealing various aspects of human existence, from the individual to the community and from the environment to supragenerics.

SUMU (Suomalainen Musiikki – aka FIMU, Finnish Music) is a research project funded by the Kone Foundation. Focusing on contemporary Finnish music with a social dimension, it was launched at the beginning of 2014. The project leader is Susanna Välimäki, lecturer in musicology at the University of Turku, and the other members of the team are Dr Juha Torvinen, Dr Marjaana Virtanen and PhD student Sanna Qvick.

Susanna Välimäki has faith in the potential of contemporary music to influence society. She and her colleagues are first debating what ‘social comment’ means in the context of contemporary music.

“The arts and music are privileged in that they are able to comment on society,” says Välimäki, “By nature, they nevertheless differ from, say, journalism, science or religion. The arts are a domain in themselves, examining life today, in the here and now. They ask what sort of society we are living in.”

The arts are, she says, always political, at least in the ethical sense of saying what constitutes a good life.

Juha Torvinen explains what they mean by ‘political’. “In the narrow sense, it means that music carries some concrete political message. In the broad sense, ‘political’ may be understood as a means of increasing awareness. The arts can also act as a collective memory.”

New Finnish art music

According to Susanna Välimäki, ‘Finnish’ is not the same as ‘national’ in this project. “It mainly means ‘local’. Any music composed in or connected with Finland may be classed as Finnish.”

‘Art music’ is another broad concept. Juha Torvinen can hear ‘art’ in every genre of music. “Art music does not, for us, mean music that is institutionally defined. It is any kind of music with a quality content. It is ambitious and intentionally thought-provoking. The actual music may be a symphony, hip hop, sound art – whatever.”

The members of the research team had examined music extensively from different angles, irrespective of genre, before embarking on the SUMU project. Susanna Välimäki had published books on melancholy and depression in music, likewise the scores of war films, and a book about transformation, music and utopias is forthcoming. Juha Torvinen has written about the phenomenology of music, and he has long been interested in the work of the Finnish composer Erik Bergman. Marjaana Virtanen brings performance studies to the project. Her previous research has addressed such topics as musician-composer partnerships, and in particular she has written about the performance of works by Selim Palmgren, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Jyrki Linjama. Sanna Qvick is researching the music in Finnish children’s films.

Out and about

The project does not intend to confine itself to the four walls of a seminar room, for the team is taking it out to the people actually making music and musical culture. This will include interviews with composers, and ethnographic research into the social impact of music festivals.

Marjaana Virtanen is interested in events built round social issues.

“I am, for example, examining the community’s relationship to the environment. I may, therefore, look to see what social aspects I can detect in a festival. The communication between musicians and the way they work together as a community also fascinate me.”

The researchers are also engaging in programming collaboration with music-makers within the confines of the project, devising concert series round important issues and discussing the topics of works with their composers.

Animal and human society

The societal themes addressed in the research are also highly topical outside Finland: global warming, economic instability and ill-being. Attitudes to the environment are another major subject.

“Animal rights have been widely to the fore in Finnish arts of the 2000s,” says Susanna Välimäki. “This was pointed out by the artist Terike Haapoja, among others, in a work called Toisten puolue {The Party of Others). Animals inspire some very fundamental reflection on existence: what is suffering, what is culture, what is communication?”

Distinguishing between animals and humans is no longer necessarily meaningful in the way it used to be. Juha Torvinen can see a considerable affinity between human and animal culture.

“The thing that distinguishes animals from humans is not language, despite what Western philosophy has thought for so long. The bulk of human communication is non-linguistic. Stress and tone, for example, are important in the communication of all sound-producing creatures, humans included. Some tribes are able to communicate by whistling.”

Marjaana Virtanen seconds this. “We can communicate with an animal in a very musical way, such as through gestures,” she points out.

Animals can, furthermore, lead us back to the fundamental questions of humanity.

“Herein lies one of the major themes of our project – empathy. Music very quickly arouses empathy. There is something primitive about music, a bodily ethical state allowing us to view our relationship to the world from very many angles,” is how Susanna Välimäki crystallises the meaning of music.

The SUMU project calls activism to mind. It has long been part of the humanities tradition. Yet activism does not seem to have had much of a place in our universities.

Susanna Välimäki believes that the time for activism is not yet past, however.

“We’re all excited about the project. We think it’s terribly important. We’d be investigating these issues in any case, outside the University if we had to.”


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Simo Repo: Marjaana Virtanen, Sanna Qvick, Juha Torvinen and Susanna Välimäki.